The Forest in Folk and Fairy-Tales

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It has been said that in literature a forest is a place where you can both lose and find yourself. Explore the use of the forest theme in fantasy literature and discuss its relationship to the forest of folk and fairy tales. *

Word count: 2700 words excluding quotes

The forests of legends, myths, fantasy and fairy tales have become laden with cultural and psychological symbolism: The ancient trees in dark, uncharted places symbolise the refuge of magic and mystery beyond man’s dominion. They represent the unknowable dangers and challenges of life, a forbidden place that nevertheless yields up reward for the intrepid trespasser, a place where tests integral to personal growth are met and overcome. The fairy tale genre and cautionary folk tales allow children the thrill of experiencing the forest as a zone beyond parental supervision. The fantasy genre, which offers alternate versions of reality in order to fruitfully examine contemporary concerns, (Gooderham: 1995: 172) imbues the narrative function of the forest with additional nuances relating to cognitive and moral development perhaps more suitable for adolescent and adult readers. The Brothers Grimm’s Little Red Riding Hood, and popular fairy tale heroines like Snow White experience the threat of death in the forest and the joy of deliverance. The eponymous heroes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal high fantasy texts The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series must also lose themselves in the woods. These heroes battle not only their own demons, but shadows cast over the future of humanity. All must enter the forest at great personal risk in order to evolve.

The symbolic connection between the soul of man and the forest can be traced back three thousand years to Ancient Egypt, where, in The Tale of Two Brothers the younger brother reposes his living heart in a tree. (Allen: 2000: 231) The symbolism has ancient roots which have emerged through many ages and across continents. In the 14th century, Italian Dante Alighieri opened the first canto of his ‘Divine Comedy’ with: “Midway upon the journey of our life/ I found myself within a forest dark/ For the straightforward way had been lost” (Hede: 2007: 23) The metaphoric construction of life’s inner journey as a quest through external physical landscapes is here strengthened. Dante’s forest is ‘savage, rough and stern’ (Hede:2007:23 ) and the poet must experience a spiritual awakening in its depths. Norse mythology of the middle ages also tells of ‘Myrkvior’ (dark wood) forests through which heroes must proceed with caution. (Page: 1990: 111) These older associations have coloured more recent fantasy, Tolkien deriving his own ‘Mirkwood Forest’ from the Norse name and sending his protagonist Bilbo Baggins to get lost and found in its depths. ‘Mirkwood is not an invention of mine, but a very ancient name, weighted with legendary associations…from the beginning weighted with the sense of gloom.’ (Humphrey: 1981: 43) * Into this dangerous literary landscape, countless ingénues have plunged and emerged as though through a rite of passage. *

Both fairy tales and fantasy offer the forest as a tangible representation of autonomous risk juxtaposed with depictions of home; representative of order and security. Thus, before embarking on a quest that will encompass a battle of five armies, Bilbo Baggins is introduced in his wood panelled hobbit hole with handkerchiefs, pantries, and the exposition that he is well respected for never doing anything unexpected. (Tolkien:1996: 7) This place and state of being is in stark opposition to Bilbo’s fear in the forest of Mirkwood, such polarities assisting to convey the movement from childlike dependence to maturation and autonomous competence of the hero. Gooderham writes in his ‘Children’s Fantasy Literature: Toward an Anatomy’ that fantasy literature mirrors psychological stages desires such as the fantasies of wish fulfillment, control,...
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